By Mary Carole McCauley
Baltimore Sun reporter
April 9, 2012
One of Elizabeth Catlett's linotypes could horrify viewers by depicting the aftermath of a lynching, the rope around the victim's neck held taut by the murderers' boots. And in the next room, a statue by Catlett of a mother and child would flood viewers with the memories of a maternal embrace.
Catlett's sculptures and prints became symbols of the civil rights movement while championing the dignity and humanity of ordinary people. At the time of her death Monday at age 96 in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she was widely considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century.
But although the artist spent most of her life south of the border, she never turned her back on her local roots. Catlett was raised in Washington, and she visited Baltimore to attend two large shows of her work: at Morgan State University in 1993 and at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1999, which hosted a 50-year retrospective.
A large sculpture of peach-colored onyx from 1990 that Catlett called "Magic Mask" is on display in the Contemporary Wing. The museum also owns two of the artist's prints, and a third has been promised.
"Even though she was making art in the 1940s and before, her long life and unending energy for making art brought her into the current day," said Jay Fisher, the museum's Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs.
Catlett, he said, found a way to resolve the tension between the abstract expressionism that dominated art in the U.S. in the mid-20th century and representational art, which was useful for advancing social goals.
"I think she'll be remembered for her unwavering focus on the plights and challenges facing African-American women," Fisher said. "She really took modernism forward."
From the start of her career, Catlett "was part of a broad political milieu" that encompassed artists of many ethnicities who were committed to social justice, Melanie Anne Herzog, who wrote the 2000 biography "Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico," told the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
Catlett's decision to focus on her ethnic identity, and its association with slavery and class struggles, was bold and unconventional in the 1930s and '40s, when African-Americans were expected "to assimilate themselves into a more Eurocentric ethic," art curator Lowery Stokes Sims said in a 1993 National Public Radio interview.
Confident that art could foster social change, Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans. One of her best-known sculptures, "Target" (1970), was created after police shot a Black Panther; it shows a black man's head framed by a rifle sight.
But she also made far more hopeful statements with lithographs and sculptures of Harriet Tubman, a slave who led others to freedom, and Sojourner Truth, a slave turned abolitionist. Catlett often returned to the enduring theme of mother and child, and her 1946 series of prints called "The Negro Woman" reflected the heroic dignity she saw in her subjects.
During a visit to Morgan State University in 1993, Catlett told students:
"I think art can make people conscious of things. For people who have prejudices, it can make them see in another way, make them realize that other people in other cultures have similar experiences."
The American South and African-American history remained prominent in her sculptures. "Black Unity" from 1968 shows a burnished mahogany fist on one side and African mask-like visages on the other. "Homage to My Black Young Sisters" from the same year is a red-cedar abstract of a woman with raised head and fist.
The two simple, stylized pieces "became not only symbols of a movement, but also Catlett's own signed missive that her head and heart were rooted deeply in the struggle," Lynell George wrote in 1999 in the Times.
Usually in print form, Catlett also portrayed African-American male subjects -- factory workers, middle-class men in jacket and tie, and prominent cultural figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
After moving to Mexico in the 1940s to study ceramics, she remained committed to African-American causes but also took up the struggles of Mexican workers. She referred to "my two people" and sometimes blended their physical features in her art.
In Mexico City, she quickly found artistic soul mates in the Taller de Grafica Popular, a collective known for mass-produced posters supporting populist causes. She gained a level of acceptance she never knew at home and married fellow workshop artist Francisco Mora in the late 1940s.
"There's a different attitude toward art in Mexico," she told the St. Petersburg Times in 1992. "As an artist you're greatly admired rather than looked at as something strange."
"Elizabeth Catlett is part of a history of protest art in America," Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, director of the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, said in a 2005 Times interview. "She made statements in her art about the human condition, about social justice and injustice."
Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.
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